On the very first day of my introductory political science class, the professor posed a question to the packed lecture hall, “Is the American Dream attainable for everyone?”

She instructed us to discuss our answers with those around us before sharing with the class. Immediately, the room erupted with excited chatter as hands shot sporadically into the air.

“I think the American Dream is attainable for everyone,” one kid replied. “Because if you work hard enough, you can achieve success.”

I watched incredulously as the other students nodded in agreement, my head swimming with counterarguments. What if your school district is underfunded? What if you live in a neighborhood where you constantly fear for your safety? What if you have to work during high school to help your family make ends meet?

As the conversation adhered to this theme for the remainder of the 90-minute lecture, I felt completely and utterly alone in my objections. I could not comprehend why my classmates did not take into account the potential roadblocks people could face while pursuing an education or a career — unless, of course, they have never encountered those roadblocks themselves.

At the University, I have found that this is usually the case. Most students here come from disproportionately privileged backgrounds; they attended exceptional schools and lived in safe, affluent neighborhoods — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, this undeniably advantaged upbringing has the tendency to serve as a partition, sheltering those who live behind it from the realities of the world around them. Some of these kids are so engrossed in their fortunate lifestyles they forget that they rank among the numbered few who can actually afford to have them.

For students hailing from more modest backgrounds, these divisions can be painfully obvious, and pervade every aspect of their college experience. Some consider their socioeconomic status to be a pivotal component of their identity, though the inconspicuous nature of it means their peers usually do not detect any difference between themselves and their less affluent constituents, as it is assumed that most college students are relatively well-off.

I understand the option of blending in is a privilege that most marginalized people cannot claim to have, and I recognize it as such. However, when an aspect of one’s identity slips so easily under the radar, it can both isolate and alienate them from their peers.

As far as I can tell, there is no open dialogue on campus that addresses socioeconomic discrepancies, and because the issue is not always observable, most people do not consider it compelling enough to explore. Popular political science or economics courses tend to brush over the subject in favor of generalizing concepts to make them more digestible — which would be fine if there were a breadth of classes that delved deeper into it. Though there are a few here and there that analyze the implications of class structure, unless you are searching the course guide with very specific results in mind, most of these courses are only discovered through word of mouth.

Furthermore, while the University currently has a Race and Ethnicity requirement that focuses on “comparisons of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, social class, or gender” there are only a handful of courses that emphasize the role of class in their curriculum. While these courses don’t necessarily need to be required with the same stringency as Race and Ethnicity courses are, increasing the availability of these classes, and highlighting their importance in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary education will engage students more often in conversations pertaining to socioeconomic status.

 

For some people, the “American Dream” is a straight shot to success. However, there is merit in realizing the conditions that facilitate this success do not apply to everyone. That day in lecture, I learned that not everyone is as acutely aware of this phenomenon as I am, and, frankly, it alarmed me. College students, particularly those at prestigious universities, wield an influence that a select few can claim: They will undoubtedly play a major role in shaping the future of society. Raising awareness about the myriad identities and backgrounds that make up this society is something we cannot neglect.

Lauren Schandevel can be reached at schandla@umich.edu.

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